If you do not know her name, you definitely know her work. Designer, Sandy Baker has had a long and illustrious career working in fine jewelry, with her iconic designs leaving an indelible mark on the industry itself, and beyond.
Among her many achievements, Sandy’s work is included in the Design Archives of the Smithsonian. Her work appears in several books including BRILLIANCE!- Masterpieces of the American Jewelry Design Council. Most recently she was named one of the top 100 American jewelry designers of the last 30 years by National Jeweler magazine. Currently her work is part of the touring exhibition, Variations On A Theme: 25 years of Design from the American Jewelry Design Council – now on view at The Gemological Institute of America in California.
Sandy’s style is straight forward, sculptural and modern. She has always designed with today’s woman in mind, creating pieces that are both strikingly beautiful, and seamlessly adaptable to the demands the day. Kinetic movement has long been a hallmark of Sandy Baker earrings, often incorporating elements that gracefully move with the wearer, catching light and adding a bit of flare.
Sandy Baker’s passion for the arts started long before her entry into the world of Fine Jewelry. Sandy received her BFA Degree from Hunter College and went on to get her Masters in Printmaking with a minor in Art History at Columbia University. However, in regards to jewelry design, she is largely self-taught. Outside of school, she would make pieces in her spare time. She later went on to take classes at The Craft Students League, YMCA, and Peter’s Valley and also she participated in workshops with fellow artists like Michael Good and Charles Lewton-Brain.
In 1968 Sandy started her career at Ashanti Bazaar, a chic Black-owned clothing boutique in Harlem. She worked there part-time while in college, at that time designing clothes and jewelry for herself exclusively. Her early designs were leather and sterling silver, later expanding to exclusively hand hammered silver and 14K gold. She quickly noticed that people who came into the shop were more interested in the jewelry she had on than what was featured in the showcase. Jewelry making had been a hobby for her, something she had done since she was about 15 years old, only then did it occur to her that jewelry might be worth exploring more seriously.
While at Ashanti Sandy became acquainted with Bli Odatey, an African Art Trader who would come into the shop from time to time selling his wares. He heard of her background in Art History and African Art, and asked if she would be interested in helping him at his booth at the New York Gift Show, an annual trade show that took place at The Sheraton Hotel and the Coliseum (where the Time Warner building now stands at Columbus Circle). They made a deal that in exchange for her help, she was given the opportunity to showcase her jewelry designs in a section of his booth. Sandy was thrust into the professional wholesale world. Her designs were well received and she immediately began getting orders for her jewelry from retail stores.
At that time, the concept of “trade shows” was not widely known, even within the world of retail. More commonly, retailers would order goods from catalogs to stock their stores with merchandise. Armed with this new knowledge, Sandy began looking into the other trade shows that existed. She heard about the Jewelers of America show where Fine Jewelers, those working in silver, karat gold and semi-precious stones and diamonds, exhibited their collections twice a year initially at The Hilton Hotel and later at New York’s Javits Center. The Jewelers of America Show bolstered a more upscale clientele; buyers for stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Fortunoffs, Tivols, Bonwit Teller, Abraham & Straus and I Magnin were in regular attendance (many of which became her customers in the years to come). Sandy applied and was accepted, thus beginning the next phase of her career and her entrance into the Fine Jewelry Industry.
When she started in Fine Jewelry, Sandy was the first and only African American woman working in the Industry. Of the over 3000 companies exhibiting, she was the only African American designer and business owner. She recalls, “the only other Black people I saw there, were the security guards.” Regardless, she ventured onward, undaunted. Sandy continued to be a part of the Jewelers of America show and the New York Gift Show, both at Javits Center, for over 30 years, becoming one of their longest running exhibitors.
By the time Sandy had finished Grad School, her “hobby” had blossomed into a vibrant and successful business. She recalls, “I realized that I had an opportunity to live a life how I wanted to live and wear what I wanted to wear, something I knew wasn’t possible in the ‘corporate’ world.” The New York Times included her in a feature on three designers who had turned their hobbies into viable businesses.
With her business in full bloom, in 1972 she moved the operation from home to a 5000 sq. ft. industrial manufacturing space at 23rd Street and Broadway, in Manhattan. She expanded her business, hiring up to 10 employees and training women to be silversmiths to do her unique in-house production. She would continue operating out of that office for over 30 years.
Sandy also participated in the Boutique Show, another trade show in 1974 that took place at The McAlpin Hotel on 34th Street. It was here that she met Lisa Davis, the woman who would become her first and most prolific Sales Representative. Lisa, who worked in retail, loved Sandy’s product, and like Sandy, was in search of a way to work that was not tied to the rigors of corporate life. Together they made a deal to allow Lisa to travel the Mid-West selling her jewelry. Through Lisa’s promotion Sandy was able to exponentially expand her business, now employing over 20 workers, with her jewelry now being sold at over 60 retail stores across the country.
By the 1980s her exploits had begun to garner considerable attention, with her designs gracing the pages of VOGUE, GLAMOUR, Harpers Bazaar, Essence, and other leading publications. Also during this period her designs were worn by a then up and coming actress named Julia Roberts. In the 1990s, Sandy became a pioneer in tele-retailing, becoming the first designer to sell14K gold jewelry on the Shopping Networks.
Sandy Baker remains a trendsetter in every sense of the word whose influence can be seen rippling throughout the Jewelry Industry and beyond. Her designs and techniques have inspired countless designers. Jewelers Circular Keystone, National Jeweler, Modern Jeweler and Crain’s New York have all acknowledged her major contributions to the jewelry industry.
Today, Sandy continues to apply the same philosophy when designing for others, as she did when designing for herself: a high level of detail and artistry, designed to effortlessly integrate with and accentuate ones own personal style.
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